Bela LugosiMary GordonVal LewtonHenry Daniell
The Body Snatcher
Medium: film
Year: 1945
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Val Lewton
Writer: Val Lewton [as Carlos Keith], Philip MacDonald
Keywords: horror, historical
Country: USA
Actor: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Henry Daniell, Edith Atwater, Russell Wade, Rita Corday, Sharyn Moffett, Donna Lee, Mary Gordon
Format: 77 minutes
Website category: Horror pre-1970
Review date: 6 October 2009
It's another Val Lewton film, which is good. However on top of that it's also full of fairly well-known names, whereas usually in these I can hardly recognise anyone at all. We have:
1. BORIS KARLOFF, giving one of his greatest performances. Val Lewton was a godsend for Karloff, giving him three meaty, intelligently written roles in the genre that made him famous, and in return Karloff gave him some of the finest work of his career. Here he's playing John Gray, an Edinburgh cabman who worked with Burke and Hare and has been keeping up the good work ever since. It's a glorious role, leering and mock-humble, and Karloff runs away with every scene he's in. He's a grinning ghoul and by all rights should have been simply evil to the core, yet towards the end he turns down the most handsome of offers from Henry Daniell in a speech which gives you a glimpse of his soul. "You'll never get rid of me." He's theatrical in all the best ways and not infrequently chilling.
2. HENRY DANIELL, also seen in three Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies.. He's good but perhaps a tad one-dimensional in those, even as Professor Moriarty. He's the cold-hearted one who probably goes to bed in an icebox and seems to have been born to sneer. Here however he's playing what might be his best screen role and delivering a fully rounded performance. He's human! He has a sense of humour! However he's also doing regular business with a bodysnatcher and occasional murderer and is fully capable of condemning a little girl to a life in a wheelchair because he can't be bothered to do the operation on her himself. Daniell's playing a doctor at an Edinburgh teaching hospital in 1931, three years after the Burke and Hare murders but one year before the Anatomy Act of 1832 updated and regulated the selling of cadavers for medical purposes in a (successful) attempt to put the "resurrectionists" out of business. He's working for the public good and he's proud of the job he does. You can sympathise with him even when he's turning into a monster.
3. BELA LUGOSI. This was the last on-screen pairing of Karloff and Lugosi, you know. It's a minor role and I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't even recognise him until halfway through, but the pair get one long, magnificent scene together that ends in a manner that I'm surprised got past the censors. It's Karloff's show, of course. Lugosi doesn't get much of a look-in, even during their big scene together, but it's still great to see them together.
4. MARY GORDON. Yup, it's Rathbone's Mrs Hudson, making one of her occasional horror forays. Her role's uncredited and practically a cameo, but she's the only actor in the film doing a Scottish accent. Otherwise it's a roughly even split between British and American English, with one or two actors hedging their bets and straddling the Atlantic. Oh, and Lugosi. For the most part this is another admirably detailed Lewton setting, sufficiently well-executed that at times you could almost think they'd really gone to film in Edinburgh, but you'll have to turn a blind eye to the accents.
5. ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON. This film is based on an 1884 short story of the same name by Stevenson, first published in the Pall Mall Christmas "Extra". What's more, unlike the likes of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, that's not just a figure of speech. Lewton's plot bears little resemblance to Stevenson's, but he's kept the characters, the historical setting and (after a fashion) the ending.
6. ROBERT WISE. This wasn't the only film Wise directed for Lewton, of course, but this is also a man who'd go on to win four Oscars. His later films include Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Of the films I've seen recently, he also made The Set-Up (1949). Unsurprisingly he directs the hell out of this one, with that aforementioned Karloff-Lugosi scene being the one that made the strongest impression on me.
7. GREYFRIARS BOBBY. No, really. There's a brief cameo for Greyfriars Bobby, who was a real dog in Edinburgh in the 1860s or so and was really made famous by the Eleanor Stackhouse Atkinson novel in 1912. It's not really him, of course, but instead a similar dog called "Robbie". The big difference of course is that Lewton isn't making a Disney movie. Heh heh.
The nearest thing the film has to a weakness would be the American accents. Englishness works in context (he says, opening himself up to death threats from Scotland), but less so Our Man From California. I can forgive the little girl in the wheelchair because otherwise she's rather good, but Russell Wade as Donald Fettes isn't even trying to hide the fact that he's American. It wouldn't have been so bad if every so often the film hadn't included a line of dialogue like "what we Highlanders call the second sight" and you're forcibly reminded despite all signs to the contrary, we're supposed to be taking these characters to be Scottish.
I suppose I should also mention that every so often the lighting is visibly following a candle rather than being caused by it. It's hard to imagine a more trivial criticism, but it is noticeable.
The story's intelligent and well-constructed. I wasn't entirely convinced by the attempts at medical philosophy towards the end, but Lewton recovers well with some "show, don't tell" involving the girl in the wheelchair. That's me being super-pernickity, though, and much more significant is the way in which the film ignores at least three possible endings to go for the most Gothic and psychologically disturbed option.
This film is much more compelling than, to be honest, I'd expected of a film called The Body Snatcher. I mean, stealing dead bodies. That hardly makes you Public Enemy Number One, does it? They're for proper medical purposes and everything. Even the film itself points out that Karloff doesn't have long toget rich off his trade because pretty soon it might become government-regulated. This is a rich, disturbing and nasty little film that occasionally gets a bit stronger than I'd expected and is really enjoying its ghoulishness. It's still Val Lewton, of course, so it's subtler and more interested in psychology than your average slasher film, but at root the secret of this film's success is simple. Rich, fascinating characters being played to the hilt, most notably by Boris Karloff. I've yet to find a Val Lewton film I don't admire, you know.